John Bruton, a former Irish prime minister who led an alliance known as the Rainbow Coalition and played a central role alongside Britain in efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland after decades of conflict, has died Tuesday in Dublin. He was 76 years old.
His family said his death in hospital followed a long illness; they did not specify the cause. Mr. Bruton had also served as European Union ambassador to Washington.
Feted to death across the political spectrum in Britain and Ireland, Mr Bruton had a long career in the centre-right Fine Gael party. He served as his country’s Prime Minister, or Taoiseach (pronounced TEE-shack) in Irish, from 1994 to 1997, when Britain was led by Prime Minister John Major of the Conservative Party.
The governments in Dublin and London had long recognized that they each played a major role in resolving the treacherous sectarian and political divisions between warring Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Bruton saw his diplomatic mission as intended, in part, to counter the suspicions of Northern Ireland’s Protestants, who sought and still seek continued union with Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom. Many Protestants feared that peace efforts would dilute their ability to direct events and prevent a united Ireland.
Such was Mr Bruton’s desire to calm Protestant nervousness that rival politicians in predominantly Catholic Ireland took to calling him “Unionist John”.
But he also took issue with Mr Major’s distrust of the predominantly Catholic Irish Republican Army, which sought a unified Ireland and declared a ceasefire in 1994 as part of peace efforts. Specifically, Mr Bruton took issue with Mr Major’s skepticism about the IRA’s assurances that its forces were prepared to decommission their weapons.
Nevertheless, Mr Bruton was also suspicious of the IRA and condemned its use of violence for political ends. But he agreed to speak to Gerry Adams, the head of the Sinn Fein group’s political wing, even though, according to many reports, both men were deeply suspicious of each other’s motives. Mr Bruton severed this so-called “backdoor” line of communication in 1996, after the IRA abandoned its ceasefire by bombing the Docklands area of east London.
In public, Mr. Bruton and Mr. Major have cultivated an image of statesmanlike collaboration. In 1995, for example, they drafted a framework agreement committing participants in the peace effort to “use peaceful political means, without resort to violence or coercion.” The framework further provided for “parity of esteem and treatment” between Northern Ireland’s divided communities.
It foreshadowed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which, among other things, established an elected, power-sharing executive branch led by these former adversaries, thus ending 30 years of bloodshed that had cost more than 3 000 lives.
Privately, however, the two prime ministers sometimes clashed to the point that in 1996, Mr. Major threatened to hang up on Mr. Bruton, known for his short-tempered nature. The two men were on the phone talking about an incendiary march by radical Protestants in a Catholic area of Northern Ireland.
According to an official Irish government report, Mr Bruton told Mr Major that his government’s handling of the march suggested it was not responsible for the situation. Mr Major replied: “If you wish to continue the conversation in this way, you can continue it alone. » After the controversies, they resumed dialogue, thus avoiding any major setback.
As Mr Major and Mr Bruton worked to advance peace negotiations, both were undone by their own countries’ domestic politics. Elections in 1997 brought Labor Party leader Tony Blair to power in Britain and Bertie Ahern of the center-right Fianna Fail party to the post of Prime Minister in Ireland, allowing them to preside over the Labor Agreement. Good Friday.
Responding to the news of Mr Bruton’s death, Mr Major said: “In difficult circumstances, he put peace ahead of political interest to move forward on the path to ending violence. »
John Gerard Bruton was born on May 18, 1947, to Joseph and Doris (Delany) Bruton, members of a prosperous farming family near Dublin. His brother, Richard Brutonalso played a leading role in Irish politics.
John studied politics and economics at University College Dublin and qualified to become a barrister at Dublin University. King’s Inns, Ireland’s oldest law school, although it does not practice law. He became the youngest member of the Irish legislature at age 22, representing Fine Gael in the Meath voting area, near Dublin.
In 1978 he married Finola Gill, another political activist, and they had four children: Matthew, Juliana, Emily and Mary-Elizabeth. His wife and children survive him, as do a sister, Mary, and his brother.
Mr. Bruton served as Ireland’s finance minister twice, with mixed results. In 1982, he sought to increase state revenue by imposing a value-added tax on children’s shoes. The move was so unpopular that it caused the government to collapse due to defections from coalition members and allowed political opponents to portray him as a rich man out of touch with reality.
But he is also credited with promoting a corporate tax cut that attracted foreign investment and helped create what is known as the Celtic Tiger economic boom.
Mr Bruton took over as leader of the Fine Gael party in the early 1990s. He was 47 when he became Prime Minister in 1994 at the helm of the Rainbow Coalition – an alliance of Fine Gael, the Labor Party and a smaller left-wing party, the Democratic Left.
Upon taking office, he hung a portrait of John Redmondmoderate Irish politician from the turn of the century, on his office wall to signal that he planned to take a conciliatory approach towards the government and Britain.
Mr Bruton was known as an ardent Europhile and opponent of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. These European credentials led him to become the bloc’s ambassador to Washington from 2004 to 2009. His main mission was to ease tensions with the George W. Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq and trade issues.
Despite a suspicion of corruption among his lieutenants, Mr. Bruton associated peace efforts with national achievements. Among them, he sponsored a referendum that narrowly overturned his country’s constitutional ban on divorce. In 1995, he welcomed Prince Charles to Ireland, the first official visit by a member of the British royal family since the country gained independence in 1921. While British newspapers castigated him for appearing too expansive Speaking about the visit, Mr Bruton insisted it had strengthened the often strained relationship between London and Dublin.
In 1997, his Rainbow Coalition looked set for re-election, but its Labor Party ally lost ground and the alliance was defeated. Mr Bruton was replaced as Prime Minister by his rival, Mr Ahern. Yet when Mr. Bruton died, Mr. Ahern said he “wouldn’t have a bad word to say” about him.